Internal social networking is taking off

Companies are developing their own versions of Facebook

In industries from retail to high tech, banking and manufacturing, companies are increasingly building networks behind the firewall where employees can create profiles and connect with one another in ways first demonstrated by LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace.

Amy Shuen, author of Web 2.0: A Strategy Guide, says: "The whole Web 2.0 explosion has moved from the consumer and college student world to professionals in the business world"

It's more than an electronic water cooler, she adds. Companies may start with the idea of helping employees feel more connected, but that's just the beginning. With easier and faster connections among people, suddenly cross-division collaboration happens more naturally, leading to greater innovation, she says. "People don't just chat; they connect with people and end up talking about things that have an impact on the business," Shuen says.

Here are three companies that are already seeing benefits from early adoption of internal social networking.

Deloitte: D Street

The idea for Deloitte's D Street began when the firm's HR department wanted to make a large company feel smaller. In addition, it wanted to create an environment that would appeal to its mostly younger workforce. At a company where the average age of employees is 28, "we knew we had challenges to win the talent war", says Patricia Romeo, the leader of D Street. But in January 2007, when the group began to create the business case for the social networking environment, it also started to envision some of the side benefits the initiative might engender.

For instance, by enabling connections among employees, the company could more easily offer flexible work arrangements, establish virtual teams, bring new employees up to speed, improve collaboration and increase retention among people who hadn't felt a strong sense of belonging.

After getting the support of Deloitte leadership and partnering with internal IT, communications and knowledge management groups, the HR team launched the alpha version of D Street in June 2007, basing it on a commercially available collaborative platform. The initial rollout was to 1,500 employees.

Romeo describes D Street as having capabilities similar to Facebook's, except that profiles are prepopulated with basic information, including name, job title and contact information. Employees can personalise the profiles with things like photographs, resumes, work and community affiliations, and former employers. D Street enables workers to introduce colleagues to one another, list external social network memberships and write blogs. There's also a "guest book," in which visitors can leave comments.

D Street helps people connect. An employee who searches on "Web 2.0", for example, will find other people interested in that topic, as well as their connection to him.

Since few employees personalised their profiles initially, early adoption was slow, Romeo says. "People aren't going to go in as readily when the well is 75% empty," she says. But with the encouragement of leadership, more people got involved, and they were soon demanding access to the rest of the organisation.

Next, the development team tweaked the system with enhancements such as reporting capabilities and launched it this year to Deloitte's shared services organisation. Currently, all 46,000 members of the organisation are in the system.

According to Romeo, 400 to 500 employees have been personalising their profiles each week, meeting a goal of involvement by 25% of staffers in the first eight weeks.

A gap still exists between collaboration evangelists and those for whom "it's just not part of their DNA," says Romeo. To encourage reluctant people, the team will continue educating employees about the value of collaborative technology, and it plans to expand the technology to increase D Street's value and utility.

IBM: Beehive

Eight years ago, IBM created BluePages, a web-based corporate directory that includes profiles with contact information, employee photographs, name pronunciation, experience, self-descriptions, bookmarks and blog entries, as well as "friending" and information-tagging capabilities.

"Very early on, we recognised the importance of connecting people within IBM and moving beyond a static view of the individual," says Jeff Schick, vice president of social software. The heavily used directory includes 450,000 employees and gets six million lookups per day.

With an initiative called Beehive, IBM is experimenting further. The application uses the code base of BluePages, which is based on Lotus Connections, but it's a separate system.

Beehive is intended as a collaborative platform that emulates the physical work environment, where employees display personal items like photographs and trophies and chat about last night's game. "We've added new dimensions to the profile capability to create the old-fashioned camaraderie of the office," Schick says. The idea is to discover whether what Schick calls "the water cooler effect" will help people build stronger relationships and thus create a more effective organisation.

Despite its experimental status, Beehive's user population has grown to 38,000 in nine months, mainly through viral adoption. "People find it through word of mouth, when others blog about it or bookmark it," Schick says. Adoption is strongest in the areas of product management, HR, talent management and the global services consulting business.

Because Beehive is behind the firewall, Ackerbauer says, people feel free to discuss internal business topics.

Best Buy: BlueShirt Nation

Two years into implementing BlueShirt Nation (BSN) at Best Buy, Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt see internal social networks as organic entities. Many of the goals they had for the platform in 2006 had to be scrapped once the site — which now hosts more than 20,000 participants — took off.

Now senior manager of social technology, Koelling was a creative director in Best Buy's advertising department when he and Bendt first thought of using technology to harvest marketing ideas from store employees. "The promise of being able to go out and tap into 140,000 employees and use computer magic to do it was really attractive to us," Koelling says. He figured it was a matter of gathering support, getting funding and laying out the steps to meet that goal.

Instead, "we got schooled quickly that not only did we not know about [technology], we also didn't know how people would react to a planned social network," he says.

For instance, instead of providing answers to Koelling's and Bendt's questions, participants preferred to talk about World of Warcraft or something funny that happened at work.

BSN is based on open-source software, and since internal IT lacked those skills, Koelling hired a development firm. The network was promoted virally; all participants found it through referrals or word of mouth.

On the site, employees can create their own profiles and host forums on topics of their choosing.

Now that employees are connected, the site is rich with idea exchanges and discussions that have even helped change company policies. For instance, when one employee posted his thoughts on why it would be beneficial for all full-time employees to have email access, it sparked a conversation that eventually led to a shift in policy to enable just that.

To Nick Pfeifer, a retail associate in one of Best Buy's regional stores, the site provides a social outlet, a protected place to discuss work- related topics and a way to close the gap between store workers and corporate employees. "As with any big company, it's easy for the message of the customers to be lost when you don't turn your attention to the people who interact with them on a regular basis," he says. "Until BSN, there's always been a schism between the two."

To help close that gap, the site now includes an application called Loop Marketplace, where people can post new ideas, with the hope that a Best Buy executive will notice one and fund it. The challenge is to encourage more execs to visit it, Koelling says. "We're trying to find ways to make visiting the Loop Marketplace a part of their workflow."

There have been plenty of mistakes along the way, Koelling says. For instance, some users wanted to adopt a system in which people received points based on their participation on the network. But once he initiated that, Koelling learned quickly that most people thought it was elitist.

Koelling's advice: Understand that on a social network, everyone shares equal status, even the person who runs it. "When the user tells me, 'This is how I want to use it,' I have to do whatever I can to accommodate that," he says.

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Tags managementDeloitteIBMinternal social networking

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